With the kickoff to the 2013 college football season occuring tonight, let’s take a look at the second of the National Football Post’s conference previews.
Here are the major storylines playing out in John Swofford's Atlantic Coast Conference:
Which team is the favorite, Clemson or FSU?
In my preseason power rankings, I gave the slight edge to Clemson because Dabo Swinney's team will play host to Jimbo Fisher's Florida State squad on October 19. Dual-threat quarterback Tajh Boyd will continue to put up big numbers in this Chad Morris offense, and Sammy Watkins should revert back to his dominant 2011 form. But all eyes will be on coordinator Brent Venables as he tries to get continued improvement from the Tigers defense. I like this unit up front because it improved as the season progressed in 2012, and there is a ton of returning talent. But will there be improved play in the secondary? The health of true freshman Mackensie Alexander is something to keep an eye on.
Meanwhile, Florida State has a good amount of playmakers surrounding new starting quarterback Jameis Winston, who won the right to run Fisher's sophisticated offense. If he plays turnover-free, this unit should excel despite suffering some losses at receiver. And despite losing coordinator Mark Stoops to the head job at Kentucky as well as a lot of talent to the NFL, the defense should still be strong because the 'Noles cultivated depth last fall. The question is whether this team will trip up along the way against an inferior opponent as has been the case in the past.
The new kids on the block
US PRESSWIREDave Doeren takes over an NC State program that has good facilities, a strong fan base and a nice in-state talent pool.
The ACC welcomes two new head coaches to the league in NC State's Dave Doeren and Boston College's Steve Addazio. Doeren helped Northern Illinois earn a berth to the Orange Bowl, and he parlayed that achievement into a gig with one of the sleeping giants of the league. The Wolfpack have very good facilities and a very strong fan base as well as a nice in-state talent pool. This staff will win sooner rather than later in Raleigh, but it may take some time before the up-tempo offense catches on. Meanwhile, Addazio has taken over in Chestnut Hill, and he has a lot of work to do to get the Eagles out of the ACC cellar. Quarterback Chase Rettig does return, but the run game is a concern. Can Andre Williams stay healthy and be a true No. 1? Addazio's personality is infectious, so this will become a much tougher and physical football team in Year 1.
The new teams on the block
Before losing Maryland to the Big Ten and bringing in Louisville from the American, the ACC welcomes Pittsburgh and Syracuse from the Big East. Second-year Panthers head coach Paul Chryst has been able to stabilize this program after so much coaching upheaval, and he'll be leaning this year on Tom Savage, Devin Street and the passing attack to be sound in case the run game experiences growing pains. The Panthers want to run the football, but Isaac Bennett will need to prove he's capable of being a No. 1. Pitt will be stout defensively, but it needs to be better on third down. Meanwhile, first-year Orange head coach Scott Shafer has yet to name a starting quarterback, but I had heard very good things about Oklahoma transfer Drew Allen. Meanwhile, linebackers Marquis Spruill and Dyshawn Davis lead a defense that should be solid.
Can the 'Canes make noise?
Miami (FL) will field one of the better offenses in the nation, led by athletic and strong-armed quarterback Stephen Morris. The veteran signal-caller has NFL scouts drooling over his immense talent, and he finished the 2012 campaign very strong, tossing nine touchdowns and no interceptions in November. He will be working behind an experienced offensive line, has a good corps of receivers led by Phillip Dorsett as well as dynamic running back Duke Johnson. The major question mark for Miami is whether a horrid defense can make a big jump at least toward respectability. Coordinator Mark D’Onofrio will try to improve a unit that allowed 30.5 points per game and ranked 97th in the FBS in yards per play allowed in 2012. Improving the pass rush could help negate youth in the secondary, but the 'Canes need to be better at stopping the run as well. Oh, and about that NCAA investigation? I can't see how the 'Canes will not be part of the postseason mix. The two-year self-imposed bowl ban will be enough, although expect the program to get hit with scholarship reductions and a probation. But the worst, in my opinion, is over.
The other contenders
North Carolina will score plenty of points in a Larry Fedora offense that features quarterback Bryn Renner, receiver Quinshad Davis and tailbacks Romar Morris and A.J. Blue. The question is whether UNC will be strong enough along both lines.
At Georgia Tech, head coach Paul Johnson once again will field a strong rushing attack, and new starting quarterback Vad Lee has a better arm than some past GT signal-callers. Keep an eye on receiver DeAndre Smelter, who has wowed the coaching staff after leaving a once-promising baseball career. The offense should actually get help from its defense this year as new coordinator Ted Roof made quite the impression this spring.
Can Virginia Tech become a major player in the league once again? I believe that quarterback Logan Thomas will be improved under new coordinator Scot Loeffler, but how much help will the dual-threat QB get from his supporting cast? The rushing attack is a major concern right now, and I just don't see the game-breaking receiver that Thomas needs to be effective. Defensively, this is a group that is ready to resemble the typical Bud Foster unit that we did not see last fall.
Expect Maryland to be much improved with dual-threat quarterback C.J. Brown operating in an offense that fits him very well. He learned a lot sitting last year after his preseason injury. And Deon Long will provide another quality option at receiver other than Stefon Diggs.
Wake Forest has a lot of veteran talent and will be looking to return to the postseason after an injury-riddled 2012 campaign. Defensively, the line is deep and the linebackers should be the strength of the unit. Never discount a Jim Grobe squad.
I love new Duke quarterback Anthony Boone, and he should excel under David Cutcliffe. But can the Blue Devils' defense improve enough to take the program back to the postseason? A veteran line will help.
Mike London had Virginia trending upward in 2011, but the Cavaliers took a major step back last season. If he wants to hold onto what is shaping up to be a strong Class of 2014, improvement is needed.
The league’s best players
Tajh Boyd, Clemson QB
Duke Johnson, Miami (FL) RB
Sammy Watkins, Clemson WR
Stephen Morris, Miami (FL) QB
Christian Jones, Florida State LB
Stefon Diggs, Maryland WR
James Hurst, North Carolina OT
Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh DT
Rashad Greene, Florida State WR
James Gayle, Virginia Tech DE
Dave Miller, the college football editor and writer for the National Football Post, is on Twitter @Miller_Dave.